James Barney will take the high-court lectern Tuesday mindful of the realities of military life as he argues for a fellow veteran seeking retroactive disability benefits.
The former submarine officer is making his Supreme Court debut on behalf of Adolfo Arellano, who served in the Navy from 1977-81 and has schizoaffective disorder and bipolar disorder with PTSD, following an aircraft-carrier collision that killed and injured his shipmates and almost swept him overboard.
And though it’s Barney’s first high-court outing, it’s far from the first Washington appellate argument for the Finnegan partner and IP litigator who’s experienced at the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which hears an array of disputes including patent and veterans-benefits cases, among others.
Barney is challenging a circuit ruling against Arellano that said the veteran can’t get around the one-year post-discharge deadline for service-linked retroactive benefits. Arellano applied and was approved for benefits in 2011 but only starting from then, not retroactive to his discharge despite his claim that mental illness stopped him from filing sooner.
“What rubs a lot of veterans the wrong way is they don’t even have an opportunity to make their case,” Barney said in an interview ahead of the argument. He works pro bono on veterans cases on top of his IP litigation specialty. His firm says it has one of the most, if not the most, extensive pro-bono programs serving veterans.
“It’s just a tumultuous time in a lot of veterans’ lives,” he said of leaving the service. “That makes all the more problematic that this one-year deadline for doing something very important is running during that period.”
Barney, a 1990 Naval Academy graduate with a Yale law degree, wants the justices to rule that there can be equitable tolling of the deadline, which would let Arellano and other disabled veterans press their cases.
He’ll square off against the Justice Department’s Sopan Joshi, who’ll argue that equitable tolling shouldn’t apply.
Allowing tolling would cause “immense practical problems,” DOJ said in a brief ahead of the argument. The Department of Veterans Affairs handles millions of claims a year and tolling would “add even more complexity to an already overburdened system,” the government brief said.
The case is Arellano v. McDonough, U.S., No. 21-432, oral argument 10/4/22.